Atlantic Monthly

An Orthodox Messiah

Pyotr Kuznetsov has endured crude and unwarranted ridicule — unwarranted not only because he is a troubled man, but also because messiahs do this sort of thing all the time. To entertain self-doubt, to supplicate miserably to the higher power that sent you, to act, in moments of extreme stress, in ways that seem undignified — these are occupational hazards of being the Son or prophet of God. Kuznetsov’s self-battery is a normal stage of religious genesis.

Certainly, failed predictions and erratic behavior should not disqualify him as a prophet or apostle. At least one plausible reading of the New Testament has Christ’s followers incorrectly predicting, and preparing for, an imminent Apocalypse. The Prophet Muhammad may well have experienced auditory and visual hallucinations of the kind that led doctors to commit Kuznetsov. The Donmeh have gone nearly three and a half centuries believing Sabbatai Zevi to be the Jewish Messiah, even after he publicly converted to another religion. None of these stumbling blocks seems to have diminished the capacity of believers to experience transcendence — or, in the case of the True Orthodox Church, shaken their belief that the “Messiah of Siberia” had the right idea when he suggested they barricade themselves in a cave last year to prepare for the end of the world.

To mock Kuznetsov is to misunderstand the nature of religious belief. Thirty-five of his flock (called a “cult” by some) barricaded themselves in; fourteen remain underground and unwilling to leave, even though the cave is starting to collapse. Disconfirmatory evidence — the continued existence of the earth — does not matter to them, and may indeed make them even more avid in their faith. We might condemn Kuznetsov by the standards of normal people, but by the standards of Messiahs, so far so good.

Originally appeared at


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